The word phantasmagoria could have been coined to describe George Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Crouching in the tall grass all these centuries until it could spring up and say, "Here I am," this, his first novel, is a loopy, powerful, fantastical masterwork.
Saunders’ novel comes at the culmination of a career spent carving exquisite short fiction, essays, and articles; many people think of him as America’s best short story writer since Raymond Carver and John Cheever. Lincoln in the Bardo is a hallucinatory trip through the consciousness of one great American, President Abraham Lincoln, as he is confronted by the souls of the dead, and, through them, by the grief of America’s past and potential future. It's set in a Georgetown cemetery during a single night in February 1862. As the Civil War rages, Lincoln slips away from his duties to enter the mausoleum where his 11-year-old son, Willie, was laid to rest days earlier.
Before Lincoln knows it, the dead have gathered all around, drawn to the warmth pouring out from the president onto his dead son’s body, which he holds gently in his arms in a strange repetition of The Pietà.
Saunders, 58, will speak about the novel at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Central Library of Free Library of Philadelphia. He chatted with me about his work in a recent call from his home in the Catskills.
You’ve been remarkably prolific. Were you one of those writers who was scribbling away before you could walk?
No. I was a reader, yes. But a writer? No, not at all. I was an errant reader. Whatever fell in front of me. So [children’s historical novel] Johnny Tremain was a big thing for me in third grade. But I also read all these crazy books about baseball, space travel, about anything, Charles Manson. God, everything.
So you didn’t grow up in a particularly literary home?
No. My dad hadn’t been to college. He was in the Air Force. Later, he did all sorts of things. He was a loan collector … a salesman for a coal company, and eventually he got promoted to vice president. My mom stayed at home. She was from Texas. We lived outside Chicago in a place called Oak Forest. It was a warm, enjoyable place to grow up in.
So baseball, "Johnny Tremain," and tract houses. What else?
I went to Catholic schools throughout my childhood. That meant a lot to me. I was kind of a religious kid.
I wondered about that. The book is filled with the supernatural, and the characters from that realm aren’t treated with any irony. You’re dead serious. Are you a believer?
That’s a big question. Let me say I’m not an unbeliever. … I’d be surprised if that which we can perceive and reason out was exactly coincident with the limits of reality. … And for the proposes of fiction, yeah, there are ghosts.
That’s sort of very politely noncommittal.
Well, OK. Actually, my wife and I are Tibetan Buddhists. I kind of believe in an afterlife. Mostly because all of these spiritual traditions are pointing to it. But Buddhism doesn’t really answer those questions in any traditional sense, in a Christian sense.
That explains why you used the Tibetan word bardo. It’s the name of a transitional state between life and death, a place you can get stuck in.
I did not want to use the word Purgatory because it implies sin and guilt, whereas the ghosts who appear are stuck in the bardo not because they are bad but because they can’t let go. They continue to desire, to be attached to the world.
Their desire blinds them to reality, right? I mean it seems many of them don’t even realize they are dead.
Yes. The idea is that this is what it means to be human. It’s to suffer.
Why Lincoln and the Civil War? Your work is so contemporary, and so much of it uses irony to savage the inanity of consumer culture. Did you go to Lincoln to find an era where irony was absent?
Well, to be perfectly honest, I had this notion of Lincoln going back to the cemetery to hold Willie in his arms.
There are eyewitnesses who actually saw him do that?
Yes. So I’ve had this image in my head for 20 years. And I’ve kept trying to find a way in. It means I couldn’t use a contemporary voice.
That bothered you.
It was a constraint. This is material as an emotional quality that was earnest and maybe sentimental. It could pack a lot of emotional power if handled right. And for all those years, I was scared to try it.
Scared you couldn’t transcend your ironic narrative voice?
Yes. I’ve been trying to write with a fuller emotional range. Especially in the positive areas of emotion, such as earnestness, but it always scared me. So this was another constraint. We are talking about a father and his dead son, and you just can’t do that in a sneering way.
So you step back and let the ghosts speak in their own voices, without your editorial filter. Is that why you plunge us straight into their disjointed conversations? It was really disorienting.
I think sometimes, for me, what you’re trying to do is avoid banality. For instance, I didn't want to do that moment where you say, “And then a ghost drifted in from the southwest” or something. “Then a shiver ran down his back.” It’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t believe as a reader.
So we have a picture of Lincoln and the idea of earnestness. What drew you to these themes? I mean, why not continue to wield the narrative voice of an ironic wiseacre?
I think as one gets older, it becomes evident that your love grows -- the love for people and for the whole thing, for this wonderful life. It’s a conundrum because you also realize life is not going to go on forever. At 58, I’m really feeling it, that it’s all going to end. It sounds like such a cliché, but when you are actually inhabiting it in your body, it’s very interesting. And most of us deal with it by being in denial. So that’s really what was at the root of this novel.
The book opens with three ghosts, but they multiply until, at the end, you pretty much give us a mosaic of America’s different voices. It’s a portrait of a society. Is there a political dimension to the book?
In terms of the political side of things, this is one idea that came to me from the book -- the commonality of suffering.
Suffering in the Buddhist sense, yes? We get hung up on objects of desire that are transitory. Including life itself. We suffer because we can’t let go of desire?
If you look at it carefully, you will see all people are struggling. Even the happiest [jerk] is struggling because his source of happiness will eventually be pulled away from him. The political idea here is to define citizenship as a commonality of suffering.
How does that relate to the political sphere?
Well, there’s this idea in the Constitution, which I think is truly deep, that all men are created equal. I’d want to say we are all equal in suffering. Our shared suffering implies a shared brotherhood. And that implies a duty of care.
George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library, 1901 Vine St. Tickets: $15; $7 students.
Information: 215-567-4341, www.freelibrary.org/authorevents.